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13 Thirteen

    Too impatient to take the bus, too lazy to walk, I took a taxi back to my apartment. I always wondered if public transportation was one of the factors that led vampires to congregate in big cities. Carrying change for the bus is easier than getting a fake driver's license that says you are the age you look. Except, maybe it only seemed like there were more big-city vampires. Maybe there were millions of small-town vampires, country vampires who went cow-tipping with the locals on Friday nights. It's not like we took a census.

    And it wasn't like we could tell by sight, unless they'd gotten their teeth sharpened, and then there was always the possibility that they were really just wannabe vampires, pitiable people who embraced the "culture" without believing.

    But all in all, v-dar was no more accurate than gay-dar. Unless they're really flaunting it, it's hard to tell, and if they are flaunting it, that doesn't mean it's true.

    I was convinced for years that Courtney Cox would turn out to be one. But after years passed without hearing about a single sucked-dry corpse in connection with her, I realized I must be wrong. The tabloids usually pick up on that sort of thing.

    The taxi driver began a unique feat of maneuvering without taking his foot off the accelerator.

    "Racecar driver in your last life, buddy?" I asked.

    He ignored me or couldn't hear me over his balalaika CD.

    Probably ignored me because a few minutes later, he stopped four blocks from where I asked him to drop me and waited for me to pay him.

    I did.

    "Peace and long life," I said as I climbed out of the backseat.

    He sped off as soon as the door was closed.

    It's hard to feel alone in a city of over a million, but I managed it from time to time. Probably my charm that kept people away.

    I thought of Lydia and Kevin, going home together to their baby-for-the-moment. And I allowed myself thirty seconds of jealousy.

    Then I went into the first convenience store and bought a pack of menthols. Not like I could get emphysema or cancer. Not like I could drink my troubles away. I could go on a blood binge, but the thought of being awake half the day with a stomachache didn't appeal to me either.

    I paid for my smokes and a new lighter and a new shiny silver Zippo for my collection, and I lit up as I was walking out the door.

    A guy with great hair and a slightly too large nose glanced at me as he passed, and I had a brilliant idea.

    Well, first, I thought about taking him to bed, and then I had a brilliant idea.

    Dr. Parrish kept his office open late three days a week, mostly for his clients with nine to five jobs, but also, I suspected, because when you only work four days a week, the extra evening hours away from your family can be relaxing, even if you're stuck in a Pleasantville office with a vampire and her dozen neuroses.

    I wasn't sure how late he stayed, and even when I glanced at a wall clock through a water-spotted store window and saw that it was three in the morning, I thought I would check to see if he was still around, just for fun.

    I chain-smoked all the way there, burning through the whole pack but one, which I stuck behind my ear cowboy-style.

    The nicotine went beautifully to my head without bothering my stomach the way it did in my innocent days. Sometimes I wished vampires could do heroin without dissolving into a puddle of slime. I always wanted to try heroin, just once. Of course, you can't do heroin just once, right? So I would've been dissolving into a puddle of slime several times a week. How inconvenient.

    I giggled.

    Dr. Parrish was gone, of course. The parking lot lights shone on grease spots and discarded cans of Red Bull, nothing else.

    But since Dr. Parrish wasn't around and I was, I decided to break into his office.

    I checked all the doors, but someone had remembered to lock up. The windows were all locked too, but the small window to Dr. Parrish's office, which was always covered by a thick blue curtain, looked easy enough to jimmy.

    In minutes, the window stood open, and in another minute, I had crawled through and was lounging in the dark in Dr. Parrish's counseling chair, kicking my feet up on the little coffee table. The whole room looked different from this angle, though I could only make out shapes in the dark. I turned on the miniature lamp in the middle of the table, and a light so dim it was almost darkness shone out onto the tan walls. Dr. Parrish's counseling chair was much more comfortable than the patient chair adjacent to it.

    When that got boring, I went to his huge desk in the corner of the room and sat in the huge leather desk chair. I searched for the doctor's ever-present notebook, carefully avoiding the steel pyramid paperweight beside his computer. Scratching myself on that thing would hurt.

    Dr. Parrish had probably locked the notebook up somewhere. Or he slept with it under his pillow.

    I felt a little guilty going through his desk drawers looking for it, but I didn't look at anything else. Except a picture of an early-thirties woman in front of a castle somewhere, wrapped in a bright blue coat and scarf. She had a light, joyful smile that shone in every feature. This had to be the wife. She was too pretty for him.

    He would say that when he met her, he loved her face first. She would say she loved his sense of humor first, loved the way he looked at the world. Then they would argue about whose family to visit on Thanksgiving and whose on Christmas. He would say that she nagged him all the time. She would ask how he could possibly know that when he never listened to a thing she said. Months of anger. One of them goes out one night to pick up a dozen eggs, ends up sleeping with the next door neighbor. Repents in tears. Messy divorce. Alimony. Then she finds someone else she thinks has a great sense of humor, and he finds someone else whose face he loves.

    I put the picture away and went to look through his books. Will thinks that you can learn everything about a person by what's on his or her shelves.

    I found the expected psychology books, but also a row of psychoanalysis texts, including one on dream interpretation, though I didn't imagine Dr. Parrish took it too seriously. Even if he did, I had more respect for him than for people who swore that all questions could be answered with a microscope. I flipped through the dream interpretation book for a while. Apparently every symbol in my dreams meant death.

    Dr. Parrish had several Joseph Campbell books, too-the mythology of this and that. What did Joseph Campbell say about vampires?

    On the bottom shelf, mostly hidden by his desk, was the fiction section. Dr. Parrish loved his Stephen King novels. He was a Harry Potter fan, too. I loved the vampire that turned up in the sixth book. So funny.

    Dr. Parrish also had a few books by someone named Jhumpa Lahiri, whom I'd never heard of. But I loved the name. I said it out loud a few times in the almost silent office. "Jhumpa. Jhumpa Lahiri."

    Almost silent. I looked up and noticed that Dr. Parrish had forgotten to unplug his bubbly desk fountain. The sound seemed to equal this place in my mind, so while I'd been listening to it since I climbed through the window, I hadn't realized that it was an accidental sound this time.

    I took a Jhumpa Lahiri from the shelf and went over to the fountain. It bubbled up with so much shining joy that it reminded me of the picture in Dr. Parrish's desk, of the wide, wide smile of the woman, and I was convinced that she had bought this for him, maybe even brought it into his office and placed it here, so that the sliver of a gap in the dark curtains would let a line of light fall across it at the right time of the day.

    I imagined Dr. Parrish sitting in his counseling chair, glancing toward the fountain and watching the knife edge of day slide across it as his clients talked at him for all those hours. He probably felt relieved when the light line disappeared, knowing that he could lock the door soon and read Jhumpa Lahiri for an hour before the smiling woman expected him home.

    I unplugged the fountain. It burbled for a few more seconds as the last of the energy passed through it, and then the burbling stopped.

    Silence.

    I couldn't hear the cars on the road or a clock ticking or mice in the walls, as though Dr. Parrish's world was a black hole of sound. No wonder he wanted a fountain. I didn't want to say anything or move in a way that would make a noise. If I did, this whole place might shatter around me, the roof slicing me up as it fell in shards.

    Had I ever smoked nineteen cigarettes in a row before? I was pretty sure that I hadn't. I couldn't remember ever feeling quite like this.

    I plugged the fountain back in, and I could hear the metal prongs grind into the outlet, the explosion of the plastic of the plug slapped against the outlet cover. The gurgling water started flowing again, sounding even happier than before, as though it had expected bedtime was near but was allowed to stay up an extra hour.

    I went back to Dr. Parrish's desk chair and switched on the bare metal lamp there. It was so bright that I had to let my eyes adjust, and even then, I pointed the bulb toward the ceiling to dim the glare on the desk.

    I opened the Jhumpa Lahiri book and realized it was a short story collection. I thought I'd read one, put it back on the shelf, and then leave, maybe taking the fountain with me. It could be the second thing in my living room. I would set it right beside the ugly couch, and when Will came over and told me, again, that I lived like a monk, I could point to the fountain and say, "No, I have two things now. You can't make fun of me anymore."

    Or maybe I'd make some art, none of the deep symbolic stuff that looked like men giving birth from their nostrils that Will bought for me, but something with blue and water-maybe a painting of the little fountain. And then I would have three things.

    But first, a bedtime story. And then another.

    When Dr. Parrish came in at ten that morning, I was halfway through the last story.

    "This is incredible," I said.

    His briefcase fell, making a soft thudding noise against the carpet at the same time that Dr. Parrish gasped and put his hand to his chest.

    "Sorry," I said. "Have you read this? I mean, it's on your shelf but that doesn't mean that you have read it. You might be intending to. Or someone might have given it to you and you're putting it off while you finish reading," I picked up the book that rested against his laptop, "Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell." I held it up for him to see. "Is it any good?"

    "Annie, what are you doing here?" He hadn't moved from the doorway or picked up his briefcase.

    I explained how I'd smoked all but one cigarette out of the pack I just bought, showing him the one I'd saved behind my ear as proof, then I told him how I was bored and lonely and how I'd left Will's party kind of early. And somehow in the midst of telling him about Jhumpa Lahiri, I remembered that I didn't have a good excuse or even a decent explanation.

    "I'm really sorry," I told him. "It won't happen again."

    Dr. Parrish was still staring at me. I hadn't realized I would scare him so much. I wanted to grin at the way he stood there like a frame in a comic strip, but I didn't.

    Instead, I put down Jonathan Strange and picked up Jhumpa Lahiri's short stories. "Mind if I borrow this?" I asked.
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